WASHINGTON - Rep. Joe Sestak's Senatorial hopes depend in large part on his ability to turn out the vote in Philadelphia's largely Democratic neighborhoods. And as operatives look for ways to maximize the voting margins within the city, they are turning to a technique that President Obama deemed antiquated during his run in the state's presidential primary in 2008.
Democratic officials in Philadelphia say that the party will observe the time-honored practice of passing around "street money" to ensure that the party machinery is running on all cylinders come Election Day. The money, usually totaling several hundred thousand dollars, is funneled to foot soldiers and operatives who help stream voters to polling places.
"Basically it does one or two things," State Rep. Dwight Evans told the Huffington Post. "First it is a form of incentive to basically get people to mobilize and knock on doors. The second thing is, basically, to make sure you have Election Day coverage on all your polling places... And then you have canvassers. You pay people to actually go door to door, knocking on doors. The other thing is you have rovers, people in their cars driving around moving people to go vote. They also deliver food and resources to polling places. And they keep a monitor of what is going on."
It's entirely legal, paid for and reported by campaign committees. But when Obama ran for president, his campaign made a stir by refusing to partake in the practice. There was something seedy about using money to motivate volunteers, aides said. The campaign field operation "hasn't been about tapping long-standing political machinery."
Turns out, long-standing traditions are long-standing for a reason. Obama ended up losing the Pennsylvania primary to Hillary Clinton. And while a number of extemporaneous factors were to blame, there was a sense of agitation among Philadelphia's Democratic guard.
This go-round, Democrats aren't taking the same risk. An official with the Sestak campaign said that they aren't personally paying street money, choosing instead to spend resources on phone calls (30,000 a day), literature (20,000 pieces a day) and household visits (280,000 made so far). But the Democratic Party in the city is. Rep. Bob Brady, appearing on MSNBC Monday, predicted a Sestak win over former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) in part because Philadelphians would turn out in droves. "We still have the street money and we're very knowledgeable and we pay attention," Brady said.
Evans, whose district is in northwest Philadelphia, likewise, said he expects street money to play an influential role in the election, in part because city officials understood the stakes.
"The resources that I will be putting on the street will be my own independent resources for [Sestak]," Evans said. "I think that this is so important in terms of the direction of the state of this country. I just want to get it done and whatever it takes I just want to get the message across to win this. And I believe that in the end it will be the mobilization that would push him over."
He also defended the practices from its critics, including a retrospective pushback against how Obama approached the tactic.
"You got this huge debate of the 21st century politics versus the 19th century," he said. "I think you need a combination of both. What happens is the people on the street operation say 'OK, you need the commercials and the direct mail and all this stuff. But you also need to ensure that you are out there working.' This is a form of making sure you have full coverage."